Image: Seals on beach
Lenny Ignelzi  /  AP
Seals rest on the rocks and sand at the Children's Pool beach area in La Jolla, Calif., on Thursday.
updated 7/23/2009 4:30:37 PM ET 2009-07-23T20:30:37

A judge on Thursday delayed an order to remove federally protected harbor seals from a La Jolla cove, minutes before a deadline expired that would have required city officials to begin dispersing the seal colony.

Superior Court Judge Yuri Hofmann earlier this week gave the city 72 hours to start the removal from the Children's Pool in La Jolla. But the city requested an emergency hearing to ask him to dismiss the order because Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a state bill earlier in the week that could permit the seals to remain.

Hofmann refused to dismiss the order, but put the seals' removal on hold pending an October hearing.

The city had planned to spend $688,000 to have someone play recorded dog barking to scare off up to 200 seals. Force can't be used to remove them because they are protected marine animals.

With the city facing the loss of state funding under a new California budget plan, City Attorney Jan Goldsmith argued that seal-removal was an unwelcome expense.

"We don't have the money to send people running up and down the beach chasing away seals," he told the judge. "From a justice standpoint, we can't afford it."

The Children's Pool has been the focus of court fights for years between seal supporters and those who want the pool restored for human use.

It was created by a sea wall built in 1931 through a gift by La Jolla philanthropist Ellen Browning Scripps. The state, which owns the cove, subsequently placed the beach in a trust and granted the trust to the city of San Diego. The trust lists several possible public uses for it, including a children's beach and a park and for years it was used as a children's swimming cove.

Seals began showing up in increasing numbers during the 1990s. In 1997, the city posted a warning that the pool shouldn't be used because it was contaminated with high levels of bacteria from seal waste.

In 2004, a disgruntled swimmer filed suit, alleging that a seal sanctuary was not one of the permissible uses for the cove and that the city was violating the state trust by not maintaining the cove in its original condition.

The following year, a state court judge ruled in the swimmer's favor and ordered the city to remove the seals, clean up the contaminated sand and reconfigure the cove to its original state. An appeals court upheld the ruling.

Because of the new bill, however, the city plans to ask the court to dismiss the 2005 ruling, as well as the city obligations that come with it.

"I look at it from the seals' perspective, it's a cove to them, they raise their pups here and they should be able to do that," said Bryan Wold, a supporter who rallied outside the courthouse during the hearing. "Humans take up 90 percent of the other beaches and this is one little section of it."

In court, attorney Paul Kennerson, who represents the swimmer, said Senate Bill 428 does not absolve the city of its responsibility to maintain the cove exclusively for the use of children and violated the intent of the original seawall donation.

"This legislation cannot stand," he argued.

Seal opponents, however, said the animals' presence was disruptive and against Scripps' original intention. Other beaches in the area have strong waves and rip tides that make them unsuitable for young children and divers, they said.

"We have no problem with the seals, we love the seals. We just want to be able to use the beach," said David Pierce, a director for the San Diego Council of Divers. "It's one of the safest places for beginning and novice divers."

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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